Friday, July 15, 2005

Senate moving to protect gun industry


Senate moving to protect gun industry

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The gun industry is likely to win sweeping protection against civil liability lawsuits in the U.S. Senate this month, reflecting a more firearm-friendly Senate after the 2004 elections, lawmakers said on Thursday.

Last year the Republicans killed their own bill, meant to shield gunmakers, gun distributors and gun sellers against many liability suits, after gun opponents attached amendments to it, including an extension of the 1994 ban on assault rifles.

But the November elections left a bigger Republican majority and the Senate is now a more conservative and more pro-gun rights body. Several Democrats, particularly from rural states, also back the immunity measure.

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, lead backer of the legal protections bill, said he was confident it would win Senate approval with few if any unpalatable amendments. A vote is likely in the next two weeks.

Even if mostly Democratic gun control advocates do manage to attach some amendments, Craig said the strategy this time would not be to dump the bill but remove anything objectionable in conference with the House (of Representatives).

"We hope we can defeat amendments and keep the bill clean," Craig said in a brief interview.

The liability bill is anathema to gun control groups. They said it wipes out legal rights of victims of gun violence, including police injured in the line of duty or families harmed by attacks like those of the Washington-area sniper in 2002.

The bill is a top priority for the National Rifle Association, the main U.S. gun rights lobby, which says it is needed to protect firearms manufacturers, distributors and sellers from politically motivated and frivolous lawsuits.


"Unfortunately, as long as gun-ban advocates are able to burden firearm manufacturers with the costs of defending themselves in court, the entire gun industry is at risk of being eradicated," the NRA said on its Web site.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said claims that the bill weakens law enforcement is a "red herring." He called it a "narrowly worded" bill to protect law-abiding businesses.

But the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says this year's bill goes even further than last year's by making it harder for regulators to move against rogue dealers.

Brady center president Michael Barnes said that even in a "tougher political environment" the group hopes to rally opposition to the liability bill and attach amendments, including one to require background checks at gun shows.

"We'd like to close loopholes that would allow criminals and terrorists to buy weapons without background checks," Barnes said, adding, "It's hard to believe that we wouldn't be able to muster a majority now" given the fears of terrorism.

California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a co-author of the 1994 assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire last year, said she would still try to amend the liability bill, but in more modest ways than last year.

For instance, instead of trying to reinstate the assault weapons ban, she said she would try to limit sales of powerful 50 caliber weapons so that they could only be sold through federally licensed dealers, not at gun shows.

Feinstein said she was realistic about what she could hope to achieve in the current Senate. The Senate Republican majority gained four seats, and some of the new Democrats are also opposed to tightening gun controls.